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EU Council of Environment Ministers: No majority for Danish compromise

National cultivation bans on GM plants: Another attempt ends in failure

No change – the EU member states will not be given their own political powers to decide whether or not to allow the cultivation of GM crops on their territories. A compromise proposal put forward by the Danish Council presidency failed to achieve the necessary qualified majority at a meeting of EU environment ministers in Brussels today. Several countries, including Germany and France, reject renationalisation in this area, saying it is not compatible with single market rules and WTO agreements.

Ida Auken, the Danish environment minister, chaired the meeting. Photo: EU Council

The idea was that EU members should decide for themselves whether to allow the agricultural use of GM plants in their countries, while the approval process would continue to run at EU level and the decisions taken there would still be binding for all EU member states. This idea of handing responsibilities back to the member states on a controversial political issue, was intended to break the deadlock that has been hampering EU genetic engineering policy for years. Necessary decisions regularly fail because neither side can muster the qualified majority they need. At the same time, a large number of member states, including France and Germany, have banned crops within their territories that have been authorised in the EU, despite the fact that EU regulations stipulate that these kinds of measures are permitted only when previously unknown health or environmental risks emerge. The single market fell apart long ago where plant biotechnology is concerned.

Four years ago, a number of countries, including Austria and the Netherlands, proposed renationalising the process. EU consumer protection commissioner John Dalli took up the proposal and in 2010 presented draft amendments to the EU genetic engineering legislation. But even today – after countless meetings and working groups, several expert legal reports and a resolution by the European Parliament – political implementation is as remote as it has ever been.

Now Denmark has made a new attempt to untie the Gordian knot. Denmark holds the presidency of the Council for the first six months of this year. At the heart of its proposal is the idea that the cultivation of a GM crop in the EU should be approved only if the companies in question make a binding undertaking before the plant is authorised not to market the seed in countries that oppose its cultivation. This would mean that authorisation to cultivate a GM plant would still be valid for the whole of the EU, but would not be applied in certain countries because of an agreement between companies and national governments.

In addition, individual countries would be able to restrict or prohibit the cultivation of a GM plant even if it had been authorised at EU level, provided the reasons for the national restriction or ban did not conflict with the results of the scientific risk assessment that forms the basis for the EU authorisation.

Speaking at the beginning of the debate in the Council of Ministers, Ida Auken, the Danish environment minister, described this compromise as a “delicate balance” and a “bridge between the different points of view”. She called on the governments that had so far rejected the proposal to overcome their fears. If the Danish compromise failed, it would mean there would be no changes to the existing situation. However, Auken’s appeal did not have much of an effect: only 20 countries supported the Danish proposal, which was not enough for a qualified majority. The remaining states rejected it, although for different reasons. Germany, France and Belgium are categorically opposed to returning decision-making powers to member states. They see this as a violation of EU single market rules and of the WTO agreements, as Germany’s environment minister Norbert Röttgen stressed during the debates.

In addition, France wants stricter safety requirements in the EU approval process and is calling for socio-economic criteria to be taken into account when authorising GM plants at European level. Other countries do not categorically rule out renationalisation, but believe the implementation proposals are still inadequate. Some countries want to expand the list of socio-economic criteria, contained in the Danish compromise, that can be cited to justify national cultivation bans, while others want to restrict it.

Danish environment minister Ida Auken did not say whether she would be making further attempts to reach an agreement. “We will resume the discussions,” she said, “only when the countries that have rejected the proposal so far indicate that they really want to move”.

So everything remains as it is. And even if the member states were to push through to a common position, that would still not be the final decision, because the European Parliament also has a say. In July 2011 it spoke in favour of giving member states far-reaching rights to ban the cultivation of GM crops.

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